Five people attended last night’s meeting. To honor our group guideline #3 of absolute confidentiality, I’m not at liberty to disclose details of who shared what during our meeting, but the main question we discussed was how to talk about mental illness to loved ones who either think they know everything or are judgmental. This question actually falls into two categories:
- Whether to disclose and to whom.
- How to disclose.
I posted some time ago “Disclosure in the Workplace,” which generated some insightful discussion. Here, I’d like for people to share any insights and tips about disclosing to family members and other loved ones.
The following sections contain some suggestions gleaned from Bipolar Disorder For Dummies on disclosure in the workplace that are also relevant to talking about mental illness outside the workplace.
Choosing Whether to Disclose and to Whom
You may be able to gauge how receptive people will be by considering their past behaviors and comments they have made about mental illness. If they have demonstrated empathy for others who have had similar conditions, you may predict that they will treat your situation with care and understanding, as well. If they’ve done or said things that reveal a lack of understanding, they probably will not understand or have compassion for your situation.
If you hear someone describe a person with mental illness as a “nut job,” for instance, that’s not somebody you want to open up to. The person is obviously ignorant of mental health issues and needs some education, but not at your expense.
How to Talk About Mental Illness
Here are some suggestions on how to talk about mental illness if you choose to do so:
- Play the role of teacher. Take a non-confrontational approach to presenting the facts about the illness.
- Start by disclosing your condition to the people you trust most and those who seem more understanding and open minded.
- Keep in mind that you control exactly how much you choose to disclose to each individual. You don’t have to tell everyone everything. Readiness to receive information varies depending on the individual.
- If you’re the one who has the illness, describe the way you feel when you are experiencing symptoms. Nobody can argue or become defensive when you simply describe how the illness makes you feel.
- Describe common symptoms you have. How is your behavior or the behavior of your loved one likely to change when you’re symptomatic? By describing symptoms, you accomplish two things. First, you let people know what to expect, so they are better prepared to handle any behavioral changes. Second, you enlist them in helping you spot early warning signs, which you may not notice when you’re feeling manic or depressed.
- Share information about the treatment you’re seeking and what the goals of that treatment are. Many people with mental illness are “just like everyone else” when they receive effective treatment. Most people don’t know that.
- Keep in mind that it may take some time for the people you tell to absorb the information you provide and even longer for them to accept it and change as a result.